Considering the centrality of “Munich” to American thinking on foreign policy – and the centrality of the war that followed to what America has become – there’s an argument for considering 1938 to be as important to our understanding of ourselves as other American milestone years – 1776, 1787, 1860, 1929, 1945, and so on.
What makes 1938 unique on such a list is our own absence from the critical scenes. The effect in Giles MacDonogh’s month by month, sometimes day by day and hour by hour chronicle is a portrait of American leadership traced out as though in a photographic negative.
The cloudy, black and gray surface reveals the following: A world without American leadership is a world that can fall prey to the “gambles” of upstart second-raters and maniacs. A world without American leadership is a world in which secretive, shifting alliances, immoral deals, territorial larceny, and brute force lead, step by step, to chaos and conflagration. It’s a world in which everyone can choose to look the other way when a monster and his brood are appeased, and appeased again, at the expense of races, religions, and nations. It’s also a world in which anyone can get in on the action while the getting seems good, not daring to think that he might be next.
In other words, 1938 marks the last historical moment up to the present day during which other nations could pretend to solve matters of great importance without significant American involvement. For nearly three more years, the U.S. avoided formal entry into the developing conflict, but the last pretense that the world could take care of itself on its own ended a few months into 1939. Soon, the argument for acting “while dangers gather,” instead of waiting for whatever day of infamy, would have 60 – 100 million direct casualties and a rubble of nations weighing on its side.
That cataclysm is the other “negative subject” of this chronicle, which, like many histories focusing on Nazi Germany, makes for fascinating yet agonizing reading. At the beginning of the year, Adolf Hitler was Chancellor in a rightwing coalition government. The country and the National Socialist order spent the year on the verge of bankruptcy and economic chaos. German borders were still defined by the Versailles Treaty, and Germany’s range of action was constrained by, supposedly, firm commitments of the “Great Powers.” The military establishment, still dominated by aristocrats and a special target of the Nazi power structure, spent much of the year planning and preparing a coup. According to much evidence, and for good reason, the German masses were uncertain and fearful, and still capable of resistance.
By the end of the year, following a series of successful, highly improvisational acts of acrobatic brinksmanship on the world stage, Hitler was the unchallenged leader of an empire at dawn set for further expansion, the nation having already absorbed and to some extent exhausted its newly acquired financial, material, and human resources. The internal opposition had been silenced and humiliated. The officers around General Ludwig Beck put plans for rebellion, which at times had been mere days from irrevocable execution, on indefinite hold (many of the same conspirators would be involved in the Valkyrie plot six years later).
In the meantime – and this story takes up a large portion of 1938 – the oppression of the Jews and the suppression of dissent escalated. For the first time, a policy that foisted second-class status on law-abiding citizens took on a literally mass murderous shape, and in a widening transnational orbit, thanks to the collaboration of allies and opportunists. Someone should have been able to do the math: Millions of Jews to be forcibly dispossessed, under orders of expulsion from a continent increasingly under Nazi domination… minus thousands of spots grudgingly made available for immigration around the world. The final solution of this simple equation was something that either no one was willing to imagine or, a much darker thought, very many people, not just German-speaking people, were happy to write off on their own personal balance sheets.
Another piece of inexorable math might have been less obvious, but was critical to all that followed. The fascist economic system, contrary to the PR, was a total failure. Without larceny and enslavement on an international scale, it couldn’t survive. Combine economic compulsion with a culture of self-superiority and an ideology that celebrated the remorseless use of force, and war was inevitable.
These equations also expose certain schools of historical revisionism for the dreary obscenities they are. By 1938 there was already ample moral and legal justification to act against Hitler’s Germany. There was also opportunity: The regime was vulnerable to the point of desperation. Nothing succeeds like success, however, and the world, by cooperation and by omission, gave the Nazis one triumph and rescue after another. By the end of the year, the message sent and received was “barbarism works” and “no one can stop it.”
For 70 years, we’ve been committed to sending the opposite messages, and have mostly succeeded, but are we still doing the math?